Rare and Unusual Americana from David Lesser Antiquarian Books
David M. Lesser's 89th catalogue of Americana.
By Michael Stillman
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books has published its newest catalogue of Rare Americana, number 89 for the Woodbridge, Connecticut, bookseller. Lesser offers primarily 18th and 19th century Americana, with a concentration of material from the late Colonial period to the Reconstruction era. What distinguishes the items you will find in a Lesser catalogue from most other Americana sellers is it is primarily unusual or short run material, pamphlets, catalogues, legal arguments, sermons, government records and the like, rather than what we typically think of as "books." This is material which can give you a real look at life as it was seen at the time, rather than as seen though the prism of hindsight. We see America at both its best and worst, her strong and principled people, along with her vain and prejudiced. If you collect printed Americana, Lesser's catalogues are an adventure. We will take a peak inside number 89.
What did people do before they had Court TV and Nancy Grace to entertain them? The answer is they read books like the Trial of Daniel Davis Farmer, for the Murder of the Widow Anna Ayer, at Goffstown, on the 4th of April, A.D. 1821. Goffstown is located in New Hampshire, and this book by Artemas Rogers and Henry B. Chase, reporters, was published in Concord in 1821. As a young man, Farmer had worked part time for the widow Ayer. They reportedly had some minor differences, but nothing serious until 1821 when Ayer accused Farmer, now 28, married, and the father of four children, of being the father of her prospective child. We do not know whether there was any truth to this accusation, but it certainly made Farmer quite angry. On April 4, 1821, Farmer went to the widow's home, beat her and her 14-year-old daughter senseless with a wooden club, and set the house on fire. He evidently thought the fire would cover up their killings, but the women awoke, and the daughter was able to put out the fire. The widow Ayer died a week later, but the daughter survived to testify at trial. This is the story of the murder, but we have a postscript to add. This copy is signed on the front wrapper, "Gov. Bell." This is likely a copy belonging to New Hampshire Governor Samuel Bell. At the October trial (it was postponed until the daughter recovered sufficiently to testify), Farmer was convicted and sentenced to hang. In December, Governor Bell granted Farmer a one-month reprieve. However, that served only to delay punishment. On a bitterly cold January 3, 1822, in front of reportedly as many 10,000 people, Farmer was hanged on the Goffstown Common. Rogers and Chase's report is item 117 of the catalogue, priced at $275.
There were many spurious arguments raised to justify the institution of slavery, but give John M. Galt credit for one of the stranger ones. Mr. Galt, superintendent and physician, published A Letter Touching the Management of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum, Williamsburg, Virginia... in 1857. He was, perhaps, on the wrong side of the fence. He proves the institution's "uniform kindness to our insane inmates" by noting "no menial duties are performed by any white person." Those are "performed by the slaves in each ward." Fortunately, Mr. Galt is able to point out that there are not many insane black people, because of "the general principle that insanity was diminished through the influence of the institution of slavery." Why Mr. Galt did not apply this principle to cure the white insane, and just where he got his M.D. anyway, are not clear. Item 56. $650.
Rare and Unusual Americana from David Lesser Antiquarian Books
This same type of paternalism is revealed even after the Civil War in the Minutes of the Thirty-Second Annual Session of the Union Baptist Association...Tuscaloosa County, ALA., September 21-23, 1867. The Association calls for the dismissal of most Blacks from their congregations. They note that the Blacks "are yet estranged from us in their feelings, and opposed to our exercising a wholesome discipline over them." The minutes point out that the U.S. Government "has passed laws giving them all the civil rights and privileges of white citizens, thereby completely putting them beyond our control..." In terms of treating the newly freed slaves as any other people, the Association states that it would be "repugnant to our feelings to associate with them in our social and domestic relations..." Sadly, we can see the seeds of strife being planted by those who had the greatest moral authority to prevent the terrible schism between the races about to unfold. Item 14. $500.
Attitudes about slavery were not always so fixed in the South. "Marcellus" describes a point of view more common among the southern founders in the days after the Revolution in Marcellus; Published in the Virginia Gazette, November and December, 1794. This pamphlet expresses a midpoint between "advocates of extreme liberty and equality" and those who justify the institution of slavery. He describes slavery as "the most wicked policy," but "now a malady so incorporated into our social constitution, that its sudden destruction would as suddenly lead us back to a state of nature, from which it might require whole ages of misery to recover us to our present station." He advocates gradual emancipation as the means to prevent "formidable insurrections." Item 82. $2,500.
William S. Oldham of Texas was resolute in his support of the Confederate cause. Item 107 is the Speech of W.S. Oldham, of Texas, on the Resolutions of the State of Texas, Concerning Peace, Reconstruction and Independence. In the Confederate Senate, January 30, 1865. Says Oldham, "the military resources of our country are ample to enable us to maintain ourselves indefinitely against any force the enemy can send against us." "Indefinitely," in this case, turned out to be less than three months. $500.
The outcome of the Civil War led to this interesting legal question, taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in ...Henry Miller, Plaintiff in Error, vs. Moses Joseph...in 1872. Miller had hired Joseph to take his place in the Confederate Army in 1861 for a price of $1,000. Joseph, evidently, performed his part of the bargain, but Miller failed to pay his substitute the full, agreed upon amount. Joseph had prevailed in the courts of Virginia, but Miller went to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the contract was illegal under U.S. laws, and so could not be enforced. The Supreme Court finessed this awkward issue by dismissing Miller's appeal on the grounds it lacked jurisdiction. $375.
Item 101 recounts a long-forgotten dispute in the New York City Militia. From 1797, it is A Statement, Explanatory of the Resignation of the New Officers of the Regiment of Artillery... Evidently, members of the Regiment of Artillery were prevented from rising above the rank of lieutenant colonel, which upset them enough to hand in their resignations. What is interesting is some of the names who participated in this resignation: DeWitt Clinton (future New York City Mayor, New York Governor, Senator, and unsuccessful Federalist candidate for president in 1812), Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston (developers of the steamboat), Nicholas Roosevelt (great uncle of President Theodore Roosevelt and a steamboat builder), Peter Irving (Washington Irving's brother), and John Swartwout, a close associate of Aaron Burr. Swartwout and Clinton would later participate in a duel in which Swartwout was nicked a couple of times before it was called off. $500.
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books is located on the web at www.lesserbooks.com, phone number 203-389-8111.